What about annihilationism?

This is part of a series on the nature of hell. See below for the rest of the series.

Some of you may have noticed I haven’t spent much time directly addressing the view of annihilationism or conditionalism. This isn’t because of a lack of respect for those who hold this view or because I don’t include it as a view that sincere, faithful evangelicals Christians can follow. I would certainly agree there were Christian leaders and thinkers who held this view in the early church. While I’m not able to comprehensively address the arguments for this view—whole books have been written propounding this belief—I do want to offer some general thoughts and responses, especially in the context of this blog series on the nature of hell.

Terminology

First, let me comment on terminology. Many who hold this view refer to it as “conditionalism” because of the necessity of also holding to belief in conditional immortality. The idea here is that human beings are not intrinsically immortal as the creation of God. Our immortality is only in Christ. So our immortality—our ability to exist eternally—is only for those who are in Christ, not for the lost in hell. Consequently the judgment of hell actually brings about their death in the sense that it causes them to cease to exist. They are annihilated. 

The problem is that people who hold the other views of hell, whether eternal conscious torment or universal restoration, can also believe in conditional immortality; they can believe that humans aren’t inherently immortal but only receive their immortality from God. Certainly this would make eternal torment more gruesome because God would then be actively sustaining the lost in eternal torment, but there’s nothing incompatible about these beliefs. And there’s nothing preventing a Christian universalist from believing in conditional immortality, indeed many seem to believe this very thing. So the term conditionalism is fitting but it doesn’t adequately distinguish this view from the others. This is why I prefer to use the description annihilationism, because it communicates more clearly the distinguishing aspect of this view.

Already covered (albeit briefly)

You’ve probably noticed that I actually have mentioned the annihilation view in many of my previous posts. I’ve often been focusing on the question: “Will anyone be eternally lost?” The way we answer this question distinguishes universal salvation from both eternal conscious torment and annihilationism. Many of the challenges to the eternal conscious torment view are also challenging to annihilationism, and I’ve included both views in many of my comments.

We noted that love is an essential aspect of the character of God, that God can no more be unloving than he can be unholy. We can ask in what sense hell is loving, how would it be in the best interest of the lost. We can equally ask the same thing of annihilationism. Is killing people for all eternity a loving act? Is it in their best interest? How can it be what’s best for them when they were created for loving relationship with God for all eternity just as we were? How can it be loving—in their best interest—to snuff them out of existence? How can heaven be truly heaven for us if our dearly loved spouses, parents, siblings, children have been annihilated, ceasing to exist forever? How can we grieve but with hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13) if we’ll never see these loved ones again? How can God claim to love me if he doesn’t also love my spouse or parent or sibling or child?1 Does God not love the lost enough to save them? Or is he unable to save them? These challenges apply to both eternal conscious torment and annihilationism.

If God’s desire is to save everyone (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9), in what way is he victorious if a great many, possibly the vast majority, of his creation will never be saved? If the lost are lost to God, and he wishes to restore to himself what he has lost (Luke 15),2 how is he victorious if he never restores to himself many or most of what he has lost? In what way has he made “everything new” (Revelation 21:5)? If many or most of God’s creation will remain dead for all eternity, in what way has God been victorious over death? In what sense has he destroyed his last enemy, death (1 Corinthians 15:26)? How is not the triumphant challenge, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55) not an empty boast if death can respond: “Right here! in the countless billions of your precious creation who I will hold in my clutches for all eternity!”

How is God victorious if he is doing to his own creation what the enemy wants done to God’s creation—killing and destroying them (John 10:10)? How is the universal praise and worship of God we see in passages such as Isaiah 45:22-24, Philippians 2:9-11 and Revelation 5:13 not hollow and artificial when it’s only accomplished by killing all of those who refuse to praise and worship him? Isn’t this like a president boasting of unanimous support when they’ve silenced or eliminated anyone who would oppose them?3 Is this truly the glorious victory of God? Is the God of the Bible truly a God who achieves universal worship by exterminating anyone who resists worshiping him—and then triumphantly exults in his “victory”?

Which view is most consistent with both the biblical character of God and with the gospel? Is the gospel about the salvation of a few and the extermination of most? Is God a God who permanently terminates his enemies,4 or one who transforms his enemies (Romans 5:10), making peace with them and reconciling them to himself (Colossians 1:20), making them righteous (Romans 5:18-19), and even adopting them as his children (Romans 8:15-17)? Which one is most consistent with the entire biblical story of a creation perfectly created, ruined and then restored?

In his response to the terminal punishment view (i.e. annihilationism), Robin Parry addresses this:

The problem is that God’s answer to evil here is not a gospel solution (i.e. to eradicate sin from the sinners), but a terminator solution (i.e. to eradicate the sinners themselves). This is a drastic way of winning creation — like winning all the votes in an election by killing those who would have voted differently. Hypothetically, God could annihilate the vast majority of human beings and then claim to have won a glorious triumph in a universe filled with creatures that love him. But is this not a pyrrhic victory? The cost of winning was so very high. And given that this was a cost that God really did not want to pay, then it is as much a failure as a victory. It looks to me as if on this view sin and death have their wicked way in the end — forcing God to abandon and obliterate many of those he loves [emphasis in original].5

Dependent on over-interpretation of key words

Many observe that this view relies to a great degree on a particular understanding of certain words in Scripture, what many of us would see as over-interpretation of these words. This is a bit ironic because we’ve seen that the eternal conscious torment view rests essentially on the misinterpretation of one word. Just as—once we understand the meaning of aionios—we see no place where Scripture describes eternal conscious torment, so we find no passage of Scripture that clearly and unambiguously describes the lost as ceasing to exist. But we do hear many proponents of this view emphasizing certain key words. Let’s briefly look at some of these words.

It’s common for annihilationists to summarize their belief by calling our focus to all the places in Scripture that describe the ultimate fate of the lost as death (such as Romans 6:23), and then stressing: dead means dead. It doesn’t make any sense, we’re told, for “death” to mean anything other than actual death, as in ceasing to exist. And this sounds simple and compelling, honoring the wording of Scripture. The problem is that the Bible often uses the word death in ways that obviously do not mean annihilation. Let’s look at one example in Ephesians 2:1-5:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.

We see here that we were previously living in a state of death, existing but needing to be made alive. This is common language in the Bible, a common way to speak of death. So it is not all nonsensical to speak of people existing in a state of death when we speak of the judgment of hell. Some will go so far as to argue that death in the Bible primarily (or often) explicitly means a total cessation of existence. I can’t find even one place in Scripture where the word death unambiguously connotes such an idea. Since death can be used in very different ways—often meaning to exist in a state of death spiritually and other times meaning simply the end of one’s physical life—to argue that “dead means dead in the sense of ceasing to exist” is circular reasoning, assuming one’s point to make one’s point.

Some argue that the Greek word translated “perish” in verses such as John 3:16 (apollumi) actually means to die in the sense of ceasing to exist. This word most often means to be lost (see for instance throughout Luke 15), and also frequently conveys the similar meanings of to perish or to be ruined or destroyed. (At least three translations render John 3:16 as should “not be lost but have eternal life” ISV, NCV and Phillips.) 

So let’s think about the word “perish.” What does it mean to perish (especially taking into consideration how frequently this Greek word is similarly rendered to be “ruined” or “destroyed”)? When we say something is “perishable,” what do we mean? If you leave something that’s perishable indefinitely in your refrigerator, does it cease to exist? We’d probably wish it would cease to exist! What does it do? It decays, it rots. It might even decay to the point we no longer know what it is! But it doesn’t cease to exist. It actually continues to exist but in a ruined state.

It’s surprising to me how many of those who hold this view refer to the ruined wineskin Jesus spoke of in Matthew 9:17 to support the idea of annihilation. The point often made is that the ruined wineskin would have to be discarded. The problem is that the text doesn’t say anything about discarding the wineskin. The ruined wineskin does not cease to exist, it continues in a state of ruin. Now, someone could subsequently discard the ruined wineskin, but they also may not. To discard the wineskin would be a separate act. The fact that the wineskin is ruined does not mean or require that it ceases to exist. (Actually, even if it’s discarded, it doesn’t cease to exist.)

We have the same problem with the word “destroy.” This sounds very extreme, no doubt, but it doesn’t require a cessation of existence. One can easily think of a car, a building or a city that is destroyed but continues to exist in a ruined state. We even refer to a destroyed city or building as “ruins.” And we also can’t forget the pattern we saw in Scripture that what God destroys he also restores.

It’s often emphasized that fire consumes things. That’s what it does, this is true. But we all know that Scripture also speaks of fire as something that purifies instead of destroying. Actually fire often destroys and purifies at the same time, burning away the dross and leaving the purified silver or gold. We can’t simply assume a particular connotation for fire. Fire does consume, but it doesn’t only consume and it doesn’t always consume.

My point here is that there is no lexical or textual basis for claiming that the words “death,” “destroy,” “perish,” “ruin” or “fire” in Scripture require or even suggest that anyone ceases to exist. And it’s inappropriate to assume this meaning, and then use this assumed meaning as a basis on which to establish this belief. This is going beyond the meaning of the text and reading into it something that’s not explicitly and unambiguously there.

Theological inconsistencies

Many annihilationists rightly stress that they, too, believe in God’s judgment of the lost in hell. They point out that their belief includes the suffering of unrepentant sinners in hell, in a way that corresponds to the individual’s sins. They’re clear that the unsaved will suffer to a greater or lesser extent depending on their actual sins. In a chapter on “terminal punishment” (i.e. annihilationism), John Stackhouse Jr explains repeatedly that the unsaved must suffer in hell in order to “make their own atonement” for their sins.6

But wait a minute. Hasn’t Jesus already atoned for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2; John 1:29)? One might respond, “Yes, but if people don’t accept Christ’s atonement for them, then they must atone for their own sins.” [And, yes, I do understand that many Calvinists would not agree that Christ atoned for the sins of the world, although that seems to directly contradict the Scriptures I referenced.] Fair enough. So they must atone for their own sins. And according to annihilationists such as Stackhouse, the lost do this by suffering in hell.

But this begs an important question: If the lost reach a point in their suffering when they have atoned for their own sins, why are they then annihilated? If they’ve actually atoned for their own sins—atoning for their sin that separated them from God—why are they not restored to God? Isn’t this the very essence of the word atonement, intentionally combining the words at-one-ment? If they’ve atoned for their own sins, why are they not then at one with God as the word requires? This seems to me confusingly inconsistent theologically.

(Please understand, Christian universalists aren’t arguing that the the lost actually do atone for their sins by suffering in hell. I’m simply responding to an annihiliationist argument, and showing where I think it’s theologically problematic.)

Some annihilationists don’t believe that people will atone for their sins by suffering in hell. Some believe that hell is simply the means of execution; it’s the way God brings their life to an end. They are cast into hell and they die because, we’re reminded, humans are not intrinsically immortal. If we don’t have eternal life in Christ, then we will naturally die in hell and cease to exist.

But this brings up more questions. If “dead is dead,” what is the state of the lost when they die in this lifetime? Do they cease to exist? How could they not, since the human soul is not immortal? Or is the soul not immortal . . . but it’s a bit more immortal than the body? Does the soul have a slightly longer shelf-life? Is God sustaining the souls of the lost for some reason? Or does the lost person actually cease to exist, and then when God resurrects the lost (Daniel 12:2; Revelation 20:11-13), he’s actually re-creating them? But then why would God re-create someone who had ceased to exist . . . just to painfully exterminate them again? That seems pretty chilling! But if the soul does live on beyond the body . . . just how much fire does it take to consume a soul? The more we actually think this through, the more confusing and theologically problematic it becomes.

The strong case for universal reconciliation and restoration

When annihilationism was beginning to be increasingly considered and discussed back in the 1980s and 90s, few were including Christian universalism in the broader discussion. What’s interesting is that when we go back and read many of the cases for annihilationism at that time, they were using many of the passages and challenges to eternal conscious torment that evangelical universalists now use. It makes us ask: Doesn’t universal reconciliation and restoration fit these passages even better? Doesn’t it challenge eternal conscious torment even more effectively? And isn’t annihilationism actually vulnerable to many of the same challenges?

Clark Pinnock challenged eternal conscious torment by writing:

What purpose of God would be served by the unending torture of the wicked except sheer vengeance and vindictiveness? Such a fate would spell endless and totally unredemptive suffering, punishment just for its own sake. But unending torment would be the kind of utterly pointless and wasted suffering which could never lead to anything good beyond it.7

And John Wenham agrees:

Whatever anyone says, unending torment speaks to me of sadism, not justice.8

But couldn’t the same challenges be made of annihilationism? Doesn’t this challenge any punishment that is purely retributive, punishment for punishment’s sake, any punishment that isn’t loving and redemptive? What if we use the same quotes above, but replace the words “endless” and “unending” with purely retributive punishment followed by complete annihilation?

What purpose of God would be served by the purely retributive torture of the wicked followed by complete annihilation except sheer vengeance and vindictiveness? Such a fate would spell purely retributive and totally unredemptive suffering, punishment just for its own sake. But purely retributive torment followed by complete annihilation would be the kind of utterly pointless and wasted suffering which could never lead to anything good beyond it.

Whatever anyone says, purely retributive torment followed by complete annihilation speaks to me of sadism, not justice.

Don’t these challenges apply just as well to annihilationism? We can find many arguments for annihilationism that present it as merciful. But the absolute annihilation of human beings, causing them to completely cease to exist, can only be considered merciful when compared to the horror of endless, hopeless torment. When we add biblical universalism to the discussion, annihilation doesn’t seem so merciful anymore. It’s only slightly less horrific than the traditional view.

We see the same kind of thing in even more recent works. In Four Views on Hell, John Stackhouse Jr ends his response to eternal conscious torment9 by quoting Psalm  30:5 from the NRSV:

For his anger is but for a moment;
his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.

But you can see how we might read this and think, “Doesn’t this passage fit biblical universalism even better?” If God is—in his wrath—permanently and eternally annihilating people, causing them to cease to exist, how is anger only lasting for a moment? The effects of his anger will certainly continue for all eternity. And, from the annihilationist view, is the weeping during the night truly replaced by joy in the morning? Isn’t this torment replaced by extermination? That may give a sense of relief, in some sense, to someone being tormented—but could we, with a straight face, call this joy? When someone is on death row and their final appeal is denied, is that the time they rejoice? Would joy come with their execution, especially if there was absolutely no hope for anything past this death, only completely ceasing to even exist?

Even compared to eternal conscious torment, this is still horrific, just a little less intolerable. When we include Christian universalism in the discussion, the reference to these kinds of passages from annihilationists seems more than a little ironic. In a similar way, the frequent references to the utter destruction of Sodom don’t have the desired impact to evangelical universalists, not only because this destruction was not the same as cessation of existence, but because God tells us explicitly in Scripture that he will restore the Sodom he utterly destroyed (Ezekiel 16:46-63)!

Because for most of us eternal conscious torment has been, by far, the dominant view, annihilationists and conditionalists have welcomed evangelical universalists somewhat as allies. This makes sense, and I certainly appreciate it. I have deep respect and admiration for a great many annihilationist leaders and scholars. But, as Christian universalism has been increasingly discussed and its influence has been growing, I’ve heard from an annihilationist friend frustration that relatively few (from his perspective) are considering conditionalism but seem to be leapfrogging immediately to the universal restoration view. Why is that?

The process of reexamining my views of hell and the bases for the view I once held reminds me a great deal of a much earlier process I went through of reexamining my eschatological view and bases for it. When I examined the foundational claims of my classic dispensational view, I found them wanting. When I examined the foundational claims for eternal conscious torment, I had a very similar result. 

But there’s another interesting similarity here. When I first decided to reexamine my eschatological views, it seemed I had to weigh through a number of possible views. But I quickly realized that the primary question I had to answer was: Does the Bible present the rapture and the return of Christ as separate events or as aspects of the same event? When I looked at it this way, the choice was between historic premillennialism (a posttribulational rapture) and all the other views. I had known about the midtribulational view, of course. I knew a few people who held this view. They tended to be very intelligent students of Scripture, and they had their arguments focusing on what they thought to be key details in Scripture. But I quickly came to see this view as a variation on a theme, an adjustment of the classic pretrib view.

When I eventually came to reject the classic dispensational view in which I had been brought up, I went right to historic premillennialism. Others leaving classic dispensationalism have moved to an amillennial view. But I don’t know anyone who has moved away from classic dispensationalism to the midtrib view. That’s because it’s simply a variation on the same theme, it’s a modification of the classic pretrib view. Even if you completely disagree with my conclusions, hopefully you can understand the thought process. And I think you can see where I’m going with this.

When I decided to reexamine what I believed about hell and why, it seemed I would need to sort through extensive arguments for all the different views. And I did read a great deal from annihilationist scholars. But I quickly began to focus on one key question: Does the Bible teach that anyone will be eternally lost? In much the same way as before, when we look at the issue in this light, it distinguishes biblical universalism from all other views. Annihilationism answers this question in the same way that eternal conscious torment does. It’s still a variation on the same theme. 

Ultimately the answer to the question I and others have received: Why aren’t you more seriously considering anniliationism? is that I’m already thoroughly convinced that God does love everyone and intends for everyone to be reconciled to him and completely restored, that he is more than able to accomplish everything he intends, and that he has planned for all of this from the very beginning, that this very outcome was woven all through his creation from the very beginning. I don’t see any clear passages of Scripture explicitly telling us the lost will suffer eternal conscious torment or that they will ultimately be annihilated. But I do see in Scripture that nothing is lost or destroyed or ruined beyond God’s ability to heal and restore, and that he restores everything he judges and destroys. I find a great many passages clearly and explicitly telling us that God will reconcile and restore all of his creation, that everyone will come to him and worship him.

I find the theological arguments for both eternal conscious torment and annihilationism to be problematic and unconvincing (often in the exact same ways). But the more I study the Scriptures and the more I consider these things in a more broadly theological way, the more I’m convinced that, of course God will save all of those he has created! I respect and love my brothers and sisters who see this differently. But I’m not only confident of this biblical truth and hope, it fills me with overwhelming praise and worship for our glorious God who, alone, could accomplish this perfect outcome to his perfect plan! Because of this surpassingly, gloriously perfect ending to God’s perfect plan, I’m driven to the same kind of worship as the apostle Paul for the same reasons:

For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he might have mercy on them all.

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?
Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay them?
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.

Romans 11:32-36
  1. Thomas B. Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God, 2nd ed. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 126-129.
  2. Steve Gregg, All You Want to Know about Hell (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 57.
  3. Robin A. Parry, “A Universalist Response” in Four Views on Hell, 2nd ed., ed. Preston Sprinkle (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 91.
  4. Parry, Four Views on Hell, 89-92.
  5. Parry, Four Views on Hell, 91.
  6. John G. Stackhouse Jr, “Terminal Punishment” in Four Views on Hell, 61-79.
  7. Clark Pinnock, cited by Gregg, All You Want to Know about Hell, 210.
  8. John Wenham, cited by Gregg, All You Want to Know about Hell, 210.
  9. Stackhouse, “A Terminal Punishment Response” in Four Views on Hell, 47.

[The views I express in this series of posts are my own. The church I serve, The Orchard, doesn’t have an official position regarding the nature of hell but allows the freedom of differing views. Our church association, the Evangelical Free Church of America, includes the explicit belief in eternal conscious punishment as part of the Statement of Faith.]

Related post:

Different evangelical views on the nature of hell

Exploring Hell series:

The question of hell

Hell in the Bible: Understanding the biblical words

Hell in the early church: What did early church leaders believe about hell?

Understanding the “eternal fire” of hell

Do other passages teach eternal conscious torment?

Is there a biblical case for universal salvation? The Old Testament pattern

Is there a biblical case for universal salvation? New Testament passages

Considering the theological case for eternal conscious torment

Considering the theological case for universal salvation

Theological challenges to universal salvation

What about annihilationism?

Some closing thoughts on the nature of hell