Against Annihilationism, Part One
It is fully to be expected that non-Christians will vehemently reject what is clearly taught in the Word of God. Happens all the time. Sadly however there are a growing number of people who claim to be Christian who also are taking pot shots at Scripture, picking and choosing those parts they like, and simply rejecting those they do not.
This happens with many biblical truths, but perhaps none more so than the doctrine of hell and eternal punishment. I continue to be amazed at fellow believers flatly refusing to accept this biblical teaching. Incredibly, they seem to think they are more wise, more loving, and more just than Almighty God is.
Thus a number of Christians are joining with so many cults and so many atheists in denying the doctrine of hell. They can do this in various ways. One major way is to simply – and foolishly – claim that in the end, everyone will be saved. This is called universalism, and I have dealt with it elsewhere: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2011/03/12/against-universalism/
The other main way of attacking the biblical position is to push annihilationism. While there are various versions of this idea, they all state that when unregenerate sinners die (or more accurately, after the final judgment), they are simply annihilated. They just cease to exist.
Others say that the lost will suffer punishment after death, but only for a while – certainly not throughout all of eternity. But either way, they claim that there is no endless punishment. Cults like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Christadelphians believe in this position for example.
One variation on this theme is what is known as conditionalism. This is the belief in conditional immortality. That is, some argue that God created us mortal. Only those who are saved will live forever. To them God gives the gift of eternal life (immortality). The lost just die and that is it. They were not created to live forever.
Theologian Louis Berkhof long ago dealt with this claim of conditional immortality: “Eternal life is indeed the gift of God in Jesus Christ, a gift which the wicked do not receive, but this does not mean that they will not continue to exist.”
So what are we to make of this theological revisionism? Simply taking a host of biblical texts at face value should forever settle the matter. See for example just a few of these verses:
Daniel 12:2 Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.
Isaiah 66:24 And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.
Matthew 18:8 If your hand or your foot causes you to sin cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire.
Matthew 25:41 Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
Matthew 25:46 Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
Mark 9:47 And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell,
Mark 9:48 …where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’
2 Thessalonians 1:9 They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power
Revelation 20:10 And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
These verses are pretty clear about the duration of hell for the unregenerate. It is everlasting. But the critics and revisionists make various claims in order to get out of this. They will say for example that some verses speak of the destruction of the wicked, and that is how we should understand all such passages:
Philippians 3:19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things.
2 Thessalonians 1:9 They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power
But these passages do not necessarily imply cessation of existence or extinction. The terms about destruction usually have to do with corruption, a loss of function, or ruination. For example, in Scripture these same words can often refer to a land that has lost its fruitfulness. The ointment that was poured out is spoken of as being wasted as well. The same goes for the story of the wineskin, and so on. None of these uses of the words imply extinction or cessation of existence.
Related to this, the critics will say that the word death means the extinguishing of life. So they will claim that passages speaking about eternal death actually mean annihilation. But various descriptions about hell also speak of eternal fire, punishment, darkness, torment as well, as noted above. Conscious everlasting punishment is hardly what we think of when we contemplate death.
Also, they will appeal to terms like the “second death,” found four times in Revelation, to make their case. But as Norman Geisler responds:
For one thing, the second death is no more annihilation than is the first death. The first death is the separation of the soul from the body for a short time (until the resurrection), not the soul’s annihilation; the second death is the separation of the body and soul from God forever. For another … biblical “death” denotes conscious separation. Adam and Eve died spiritually the moment they sinned, yet they still existed and could hear God’s voice.
Another ploy is to question how the adjective eternal (aionios) is used. Of the 65 times the word is used, in most cases it seems to clearly denote time without end. The noun aion can be used in various ways, and can refer to periods of limited duration. Looking at each occurrence of the term in context is of course the way to proceed here.
As Millard Erickson comments, “To be sure, the adjective aionios may on a few occasions have reference to an age, that is, a very long period of time, rather than to eternity. Usually, however, in the absence of a contrary indication in the context, the most common meaning of a word is the one in view.”
The strongest argument against the annihilationists is of course when the very same word is used in the very same passage which speaks about the fate of both classes of people. For example, Matthew 25:46 says, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Here Jesus clearly teaches that both heaven and hell are of eternal duration. Or are we to actually believe that those in heaven are there only for a little while, if at all?
Robert Peterson, in a debate with annihilationist Edward Fudge, says that the parallelism between “eternal punishment” and “eternal life” in this passage “speaks volumes. The two destinies of human beings – punishment and life – are both modified by the same adjective eternal in the same sentence. Fudge would do well to heed his own words, ‘Whatever aionios [eternal] means, one should have good cause for not translating it the same way when it appears twice in one verse!’ I heartily agree.”
Yet the critics have other tactics. They will claim that hell cannot be real, since fire cannot burn forever, or it cannot coexist with utter darkness, and so on. So they claim it is just a figurative place. The short answer here is that yes, figurative language is certainly often being used here – but it is used for a very real reality.
And if the figures of speech used are so very gruesome, then the realities behind them must be pretty horrific indeed. As R. C. Sproul explains:
When Jesus uses an image, do you suppose that the reality is less intense or more intense than the image? The reason for using images and symbols is that we are not able to bear a more precise picture of reality. That Jesus would choose these terrifying symbols in describing hell indicates to me that the reality will be far worse. The sinner in hell will wish he could be in a lake of fire, rather than the reality to which it points.
Consider just one term (and image) for hell: the word gehenna used so often by Jesus. The Hebrew word ge-hinnom referred to the valley of Hinnom southwest of Jerusalem. In Old Testament times it became a site for the burning of children in child sacrifice. It later became a rubbish heap where trash burned day and night. Says William Crockett:
Eventually, the Hebrew name ge-hinnom (canyon of Hinnom) evolved into geenna (gehenna), the familiar Greek word for hell (Matt. 5:22, 29; 10:28; 18:9; 23:33; Mark 9:43, 45; Luke 12:5). Thus when the Jews talked about punishment in the next life, what better image could they use than the smoldering valley they called gehenna? In the intertestamental period, gehenna was widely used as a metaphor for hell, the place of eternal damnation.
This is indeed a good image of what hell is like. As Jesus said in Mark 9:43, hell is “where the fire never goes out” and in v. 48, hell is “where the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.” If a symbol or metaphor, it describes an awful – and an eternal – reality.
Let me wrap up this all-too brief look at the biblical evidence by raising four questions which David Pawson asks of the annihilationists:
First, why should the wicked be ‘raised’ (i.e. given new bodies) for the Day of Judgment, only to have them destroyed again immediately afterwards? This would be a totally unnecessary act of creation and seems somewhat bizarre, to say the least.
Two, why ‘prepare’ a place called ‘hell’ at all? The God who created the whole universe by his word can surely obliterate it with the same instrument.
Third, what is to be made of the clear statements that the fire, smoke and even worms of hell are permanent? This implies their continued existence long after their function has been fulfilled.
Fourth, why should the thought of oblivion inspire fear? Jesus spoke with utter horror of Gehenna. And sacrifice (of organ or limb) was preferable to finding one’s ‘whole body’ in that dreadful place. It is a fate worse than death.
Part Two of this article is found here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2014/12/04/against-annihilationism-part-two/
14 Replies to “Against Annihilationism, Part One”
Can you explain Jude 1 :7 in light of what you are sharing about eternal fire ..
7 just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.
Thanks Ani Mc
Great read Bill and timely too. I was just discussing this the other night with my SDA friend.
It just seems so bizarre to me that God would let off those that have wilfully rejected Him by annihilating them. Hardly a punishment is it?
Thanks Anastasia. Along with many theologians and commentators I hold that hell fire can be both real and metaphorical. As I say above, if it is more of an image of the actual thing, the real deal is horrible indeed. I have no problems with eternal flames being possible. Simply think of the burning bush and Moses episode for example. Whatever it is, it is very bad indeed.
Thanks for the reply Bill.. I will keep reading:-)
I suppose we are in the territory of praying for the dead.
As the Orthodox[and Catholics do].– My understanding of the Orthodox position, is, that if you pray for a non believing friend or relative,who you loved, [who is dead] God in the circle of eternity-saw that prayer coming and confronted that person on their death bed, when their ego and intellect were no more–Spirit to spirit. No guarantee, but a possibility of salvation? As St Thomas Aquinas said “the dying cannot resist the grace of God”
The Orthodox take this from Maccabees, which they believe, like the Catholics, is– Holy scripture.
The Catholics certainly do a good job of the dying process with extreme unction.
Maybe some Orthodox Christian will give me a severe theological thrashing here.??
If this is a correct interpretation of praying for the dead,–Protestants [like me] are deep, deep ,deep in the sin of omission.
Thanks Gerald. But no, we are not sinning in the least. We are not told to pray for the dead in Scripture. We are told quite clearly that after death there comes judgment (Hebrews 9:27). There are no second chances, and no reasons to pray for the departed. They are either part of the beloved, or they are lost. We are to pray for people while they are still alive, and still have the chance to make proper choices.
This issue has long been a serious issue of concern for me. It bothers me how many ‘evangelicals’ are gravitating to ‘conditionalism’.
To me the doctrine of eternal punishment could not be any more clearer than it is. You can only deny it on philosophical grounds (albeit erroneous ones) not at all on the Biblical data.
At one level I am not surprised though. I have noticed a general trend of avoiding preaching on the topic (or so it seems) in other wise faithful and sound churches. It will naturally follow people will be more ripe to fall by the way side of annihilationism. It suddenly has more appeal, though it be so contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture, when they hear nothing or at least very litle on the matter.
The impression I get is that academically minded evangelicals are embarrased by the ‘fundamentalists’ who are more given to preach on Hell. But on this matter my feeling is they are more faithful to their calling.
Hi Bill and Gerald – I just wanted to offer a point of clarification for what it’s worth. Catholics agree that at death there is a personal judgment and the soul is either saved or damned. Here is I think a relevant link to a short blurb in the catholic catechism regarding hell that I believe confirms what I am saying with regard to what the Catholic teaching actually is: http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/para/1035.htm
What Gerald mentioned is more a novel theological possibility than a Catholic teaching (the idea that God in His omnipotence could apply our prayers to a loved one in the past when he was alive and still had the ability to make a decision to accept Christ). But that idea is not what the Church definitely affirms, or the reason why Catholics pray for the dead. Catholics pray for those who have died with the assumption that they were saved, but may be in purgatory, a state I know not all Christians believe in but that Catholics believe is a process some Christians must go through before entering heaven. I see this as “being saved, but as through fire” because of unrepentant venial sin. I hope I don’t sound like I’m arguing, just explaining where we Catholics are at. If we are to disagree, let us at least understand clearly what we are disagreeing about and where we both are at in our beliefs. Catholics do not believe it is possible to be saved after death if you are not saved before death, just as most Protestants do, so on this point there is actually substantial agreement, although there are some differences as well I don’t think they are essential differences.
Confronted with the question of whether damnation is eternal or merely an annihilation, I always think of the notion of appropriate punishment for the crime in question: If rejecting the Lamb of God means rejecting everlasting life, what then constitutes a sufficient punishment for such a sin?
Christ died for our sins. That’s how serious sins are. Their root cause, that “unprincipled” principle, sin is also “utterly sinful”. Is annihilation, or anything less than a lost eternity, enough punishment for rejecting the everlasting God and His everlasting way?
Thanks Joe. Of course on biblical grounds Protestants reject the theory of purgatory as well. But as readers of this site know, I try to leave these sorts of sectarian debates between Catholics and Protestants for other sites. Of course to raise a topic like this will result in such debates I realise. So I try to steer a narrow pathway here! But thanks for your thoughts.
Understood Bill. I think that is a good policy, and I should have edited my previous comment down to focus more on my point, that the Catholic (and I believe also the Eastern Orthodox) churches agree with you on the point that hell is real and eternal. Cobelligerents even on some theological issues! 🙂
Jesus said about Judas – ” It would be better for him if he had not been born.”
If he had “not been born” then this is worse than annihilation – since he would never experience life, nor have been given a choice.
Therefore this statement contradicts annihilation.
great article and as always very very important to highlight again. Your conclusions are biblical and sorely needed in this day and age.
I have one very small point that is not intended to detract from the thrust and principles of the article. In fact, I hope you even see that it strengthens your article.
It is around the quotation from 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10a:
‘…if so be that it is righteous thing with God to recompense affliction to them that afflict you, and to you that are afflicted rest with us, at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with the angels of his power in flaming fire, rendering vengeance to them that know not God, and to them that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus: who shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he shall come to be glorified in his saints…’
I have read this chapter in the NIV, KJV, NKJV, RSV and other versions (biblegateway.com is one easy place to do this). I have also read this passage in the Greek transliteration. Of the translations that I have read, only the Greek transliteration and the NKJV/KJV/ASV avoid adding in a word in v.9. For example in the NIV:
‘They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might’
Now, the “shut out from”, in the ESV translation looks like this:
‘They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from[b] the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might’
So here it is “away from”. To the credit of the ESV translation, there is a (b) footnote above which says an alternative to “away from” is “destruction that comes from”.
When you go to the Greek texts that are available, the word “away” is simply not there, although the word “from” is. The insertion of “away” into the text changes the meaning so much so that functional translations like the NIV use the phrase “shut out from” and others (e.g. MEV) go as far as to say “isolated from the presence of the LORD”.
As you probably also know, this doctrine around the presence of Christ in the unbeliever’s eternal punishment does not hinge on this passage alone. Sometimes people say (and as far as I understand you, you would not put yourself in this category) that people send themselves to hell. Actually, while each of us is culpable for our own sins outside of the Cross, it is Jesus Christ who judges and sends people to eternal punishment (e.g. Revelation 21). The presence of Jesus Christ in the unbeliever’s punishment was also seen by John in Revelation 14. This passage has not been altered in the way 2 Th. 1 has been by some translations:
‘A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”’
I think that when we see these passages taken together, not only is Jesus Christ the Redeemer, He also executes eternal punishment, himself. I think that God’s Sovereignty is such that it it only He, as Jesus Christ, that can, and must punish eternally. This is not something left to the Devil (and I don’t think you are implying that) and not something left to the flames and burning sulfur without the presence of Jesus and the holy angels.
Eternal separation from God, for the lost, is not something I find support for from these Scriptures.
God bless! Matthew.
That verse you cited- Matthew 25:46 says, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” That couldn’t make it any more plainer. I could never understand how people came to believe this. I have always thought Hell meant eternity. It is as bad as Universalism.