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Some Thoughts on Annihilationism

Blake DanteI have been leaning towards “Annihilationism” for a while now. (As if I needed one more thing to tweak my Evangelical friends.) This is the belief that souls do not suffer eternally in hell but are extinguished or destroyed. Annihalationism is not so much counter to the traditional evangelical view of everlasting torment (that would be Universalism), as it is the reinterpretation of Scriptural themes and verses traditionally used to defend conscious eternal torment.

But while I’m leaning toward annihalationism, there’s three things that keep me from embracing the belief wholesale:

  1. It is a position that appeals to my emotions. I cannot conceive of how a single lifetime of unbelief and sin is commensurate with unending eons of physical torment. This doesn’t mean hell could not involve some form of eternal suffering (temporary or unending) or that I’m unwilling to concede belief in a God who would render such judgment. I’m just admitting up front that one of the strengths of annihalationism, from my perspective, is that it disarms the emotional weight (and seeming injustice) of the traditional view of hell.
  2. The many verses that speak to eternal, ongoing, torment. Like Christ’s own words in Matt. 25:36 — “Then they [the unsaved] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Here, eternal life appears juxtaposed against eternal suffering, implying both are ongoing and forever. These verses, however, inevitably become a theological battle between scholars and exegetes, leaving laymen like myself to trust one or the other. Either way, the person embracing annihalationism must honestly confront verses like this which seem to teach “eternal punishment.”
  3. Annihalationism is not commensurate to the hideous nature of human sin and depravity. I mean, why surrender my life to God if the only consequences are that I will cease to exist? Why not carouse, party, womanize, cheat, lie, and live for myself if the only eternal consequences will be that I stop existing? In theory, then, Hitler pays nothing for enacting genocide on millions. He just stops existing. Is this justice? It could be that the traditional concept of hell actually elevates Christ’s sacrifice and human free will.

Anyway, I’ve been wrestling with this for a while.

Here’s where I’ve landed: While I’m unsure exactly what happens to the unbelieving soul after death, the Bible is clear about certain things:

  1. Everyone doesn’t get saved. Universalism, in my opinion, is the weakest of all religious end games. It renders human free will virtually moot, not to mention the many, many warnings found throughout Scripture regarding sin, unbelief, and the afterlife.
  2. There are consequences in the afterlife to our actions / non-actions regarding God, Christ, and Truth. Whether one chooses to believe in eternal suffering or eternal destruction, the reality is that decisions in this life impact the next life. The Bible simply does not frame human life as a spiritual / moral free-for-all without consequences. Nor does it suggest a Loving God is a God without Wrath.
  3. Whatever those consequences are they are forever. The concepts of purgatory or reincarnation are simply not found in the Bible (and even if they were, they still hint at the notion that ones eternal state is contingent upon their conduct). Perhaps the grimmest, most urgent aspect of the Bible’s message relates to its view of the nature of the afterlife. Ones eternal state cannot be undone. There are no do-overs.
  4. IF unbelieving souls are extinguished, then that state IS the worst of all possible states for a human soul.  Again, that’s an IF. In other words, if God annihilates the human soul as punishment, then from His perspective the worst possible fate for a creature made in God’s image, a creature with the ability to choose life or death, is to forfeit its existence. For those made in God’s image, the worst of all possible fates may be non-being, spiritual dis-assembly, the relinquishing of Life. (If this is true, then the real “eternal torment” is on God’s end, because He alone would bear the memory of the soul that existed and could have been.)

It’s still a subject I’m very much in transition with. I want to believe that my unbelieving loved ones will not live forever and ever in spiritual and physical agony. I just don’t know if there’s enough compelling biblical — as opposed to emotional — reasons to do so.

Bottom line: The Bible presents a God who is infinitely Loving and Just. IF there is an eternal hell where human souls suffer forever, I trust that that God deems such a place Loving and Just.

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{ 18 comments… add one }
  • Jill July 7, 2014, 9:43 AM

    1. It may very well appeal to your emotions. I’m not going to tell you otherwise. But I find it more likely that it appeals to your God-given sense of justice. In God’s own law, the highest punishment for crimes was death, not torture.

    2. If there is no possibility for revival, why isn’t death an eternal punishment?

    3. This is the most troubling to me because it seems to view salvation in exactly the wrong light. We are not saved because we want a get-out-of-jail card for all our crimes. We are saved because we are drawn by the Holy Spirit to the waters of salvation. It is God’s good work in us.

    The Bible has a formula: the wages of sin is death. We are saved from death by Jesus, who defeated it. Amen to that.

  • Mike Duran July 7, 2014, 10:00 AM

    Jill, regarding #1 — I put that at the top of my list because I’m suspect (whether right or wrong) to basing decisions mainly on feelings. If my feelings align with God’s will, great! However, I’ve found there’s many things that don’t jibe with me emotionally, nevertheless God seems to feel otherwise. So I think the Bible would teach us to elevate God’s will or principles above our own feelings. Furthermore, I think feelings drive MANY contemporary interpretations of theology, rather than a straight reading of Scripture. Anyway, that’s why I list that first as a caution about my embrace of annihalationism.

    • Gary Whittenberger July 14, 2014, 1:24 PM

      Mike, the problem is that if he exists, God has not made his principles clear. If he had, we would not have so many different and sometimes contradictory beliefs about the disposition of unforgiven sinners in an afterlife. Just look at all the different ideas on this: eternal torture, annihilationism, universalism, purgatory, limbo, levels of Heaven and/or Hell, resurrection. Different Christians have a variety of beliefs which stem from their different interpretations of verses from the Bible.

      So, I suggest that you rely on Reason alone and set aside scripture and your feelings on this issue. See my other post with regard to another alternative.

  • Lex Keating July 7, 2014, 10:25 AM

    While I’m not 100% convinced on this, I have long had the understanding that Scripture does kind of divide the afterlife. That the only time in which a human soul can choose to follow God–or not–is before death. Once dead, the soul departs to be with its master. (And yes, if you have chosen “not”, you get to be with the one who first defied the Almighty.) There’s no going back from that choice, as I understand it. However, is there not a passage (probably in Revelation 20 or 21) that talks about what happens after the final Judgement? Yeah, yeah, there’s a lake of fire that all evil gets thrown into, but isn’t that the final confrontation with God? Does Scripture not say that when God makes a new heaven and a new earth, He rolls up the old and destroys it? I have always understood that this means the final extinguishing of those souls who said “no” to God. That His grace extends so far as to conclude suffering, even for those who want nothing from Him.

    I could be wrong. It’s happened before. I don’t mind learning something new. In God’s utter and perfect righteousness, no sin can stand. I’ve seen this in my own life, recognized it in teachings, and sought this truth in Scriptures. If we choose “no” to God, this is a specific sin of rebellion and self-centeredness that cannot be allowed in His presence. In His infinite love, He had to create a place where He was not, so that free will could be exercised. Now, any place without God is nowhere I want to be. Among other things, God is love, so this place without God would be a place where things like love, joy, peace, hope, etc. could not exist. No fun for the inhabitants.

    All of this, I can say because I am in a loving relationship with Him. If someone has not tasted and seen that the Lord is good, none of this argument should make sense to them. I get that. I remember me before I knew Him. I didn’t get it, either. But I had looked in myself and seen evil. That I was willing to lie, to steal, to hurt–either simply because I could, or because I wanted my way. And I had to face that this selfishness marked me as worthy of eternal death and torment before I would consider entrusting my soul into His keeping.

    Taking Hell out of the message of salvation has never made sense to me, because I needed the reality of that consequence for my choices to understand I couldn’t save myself. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” didn’t spark a nationwide revival because it made people feel loved. GOD does that. And He doesn’t do that–in Scripture or in my experience–by giving His children the warm-fuzzies. Telling us what we want to hear wouldn’t be love.

  • Brent King July 7, 2014, 3:17 PM

    Whatever punishment lies in store for those who reject Love, it will be fit the crime. However, I have always questioned eternal hellfire because the same wording that is used to describe the “everlasting” fire at the end of time is also used to describe the destruction of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 17:27) and Sodom (Jude 1:7). These geographic locations are not burning today, so my only conclusion can be that what God means is “burned up”, “extinguished”, “destroyed”, “unquenched until its task is complete.”

    The other issue I have with eternal hellfire is that in Isaiah 33:14-15 it is the righteous who are described as being the only ones who can dwell in the fire (our God is a consuming fire…Deuteronomy 4:24, Hebrews 12:28-29). If this is true, only those who have availed themselves of grace will be able to live in the fire, to survive the lake of fire intact (Revelation 15:2). They will frolic in the brimstone like a spring shower. All others will perish in it.

  • Lyn Perry July 8, 2014, 3:59 AM

    Pretty much where I land as well. I figure God has the big picture in mind and I have but a fraction of a corner piece. Will not the judge of all the earth do right?

  • SherryT July 8, 2014, 4:53 PM

    In my view, Lewis addresses how eternal suffering might be interpreted in “The Great Divorce”. He posits that the doors of Hell are locked from the inside. The sinners are tormented & miserable eternally because -they- continue thinking & doing sinful things, having reached the point where they’ve shut out anything else including awareness of God’s love, even of His existence.
    Via a series of character vignettes Lewis suggests ways in which sinners voluntarily choose to torture themselves with their own eternally circling depraved thoughts, their rage over thwarted aspirations, bloated jealousy over inconsequentials, etc.
    Lewis takes the liberty–it’s a fictional work–of showing what might happen to a condemned sinner who found a way to relinquish his clutch on his hatred, pride, etc. Only one chance in a billion, but not impossible.
    His is not just an intellectual exercise but a subtle warning of sins we may clutch to ourselves forever because we can’t even “see” them much less admit they’re sins. Admitting the truth opens our self-imposed door to the One knocking.

    • Dan July 10, 2014, 10:49 PM

      I’ve always found Lewis’s speculations in The Great Divorce to be significantly at odds with the biblical data. Hell (which I do hold to be a process that ends in annihilation) is something that will be marked with regret and a desire that things ended differently, not something that people would easily hold to over heaven (such as the people pleading with Jesus in the parables).

  • Alan R Joiner July 9, 2014, 10:20 AM

    I believe in eternal hellfire (in part) because of the internal symmetry of Mike’s Biblical reference. The life is eternal, so by cultural literary practice, the suffering would have to be just as eternal. I do not believe this because I *want* people burning eternally. It’s just that that’s the clearest message that I believe scripture gives us.

    I think to discount Hell from the gospel is a disservice. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Himself used Hell as one important aspect of our decision making process.

    I think to minimize the weight of our sin in any way is to minimize our view of God’s holiness and glory. When I lie, I am not sinning against (just) you. I am sinning against an infinitely good, infinitely holy God. So, to me, the idea of judging sin according to my finite life fails to judge my sin against the infinite attributes of He who is sinned against.

    In my mind, as has been stated, to minimize Hell is also to minimize the importance of the work of Christ, thus to minimize grace. God is perfectly just, so He will perfectly judge sin. He is also perfectly and infinitely gracious. Hell casts the shadow of that infinity.

    I’ll note again that I detest the thought of anyone suffering for eternity. I guess that’s one reason I have such an evangelistic outlook. If Hell is real, and if it is everything that I believe it to be, then I have no excuse to keep salvation for myself. I have no excuse not to share my faith.

    • Wm Tanksley August 6, 2014, 4:48 PM

      //I believe in eternal hellfire (in part) because of the internal symmetry of Mike’s Biblical reference. The life is eternal, so by cultural literary practice, the suffering would have to be just as eternal.//

      Except that the passage didn’t mention suffering. It said “punishment”. Furthermore, if you believe the word “eternal” means that punishment and the life will both last forever, then you can’t argue that the goats receive life, any more than the sheep receive punishment. Since the goats don’t receive life, they die.

      Also, it said the punishment would be in “eternal fire.” Why would the eternal fire leave anyone still living? “Eternal fire” sounds a lot like the fire mixed with sulfur that fell on Sodom and was used when God said He wanted to totally destroy someone. Jesus himself mentioned that — “fire and burning sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all.” In fact, linking the eternal fire to Sodom isn’t my idea: Jude 7 makes it explicit, and even adds that Sodom is exhibited (set forth) as an example of undergoing the punishment of eternal fire. So what does the Bible say happened to Sodom? Reduced to ashes, destroyed… nothing about torment. In fact, there’s even one passage in which the Israelites complain that their sufferings are greater than Sodom’s.

      //I do not believe this because I *want* people burning eternally. It’s just that that’s the clearest message that I believe scripture gives us.//

      I definitely appreciate that — all the more because I used to agree.

      //I think to discount Hell from the gospel is a disservice.//

      Not what we’re proposing. We’re not unitarian universalists.

      //In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Himself used Hell as one important aspect of our decision making process.//

      Indeed; He told us to compare the total destruction and loss of one part of our body to the total destruction of the whole body (and in Matt 10:20, He says “body and soul” are destroyed in Gehenna).

  • Gary Whittenberger July 9, 2014, 1:56 PM

    Mike, you said “The Bible presents a God who is infinitely Loving and Just.” If the Bible is correct on this point, then neither everlasting torment nor annihilation of the soul for persons noncompliant with God’s will are compatible with God’s nature. No infinitely loving and just god would do either!

    What would a god like that do? He would clearly specify his rules for compliance to all human persons. The rules would be of the form “If you do A, then I will reward you with B years of bliss, but if you do C, then I will punish you with D years of suffering in your afterlife.” Then, this god would tally up the years of bliss and the years of suffering for each human person at the end of their earthly life. This god would send the human soul to serve his sentence of suffering first. Subsequently, he would send the same soul to experience his sentence of bliss. That’s what perfect love and justice would look like. Just call this “Enlightened Theism,” and join the group!

    So, any interpretation of verses of the Bible to imply that God implements eternal torture or annihilationism for souls has to be mistaken. That is, if he exists.

    • bainespal July 22, 2014, 6:21 AM

      Your reductionism is the same as systematic theology. You might as well be a fire-and-brimstone preacher.

      I would be susceptible to your arguments. I’ve long doubted the ability of Christians to have any assurance in theology because of disagreement. But if human reason is too limited to reach an objective interpretation of Scripture, I won’t trust a secularist trying to hijack theology based on pure reason.

  • Chris Date July 11, 2014, 5:36 AM

    “I believe in eternal hellfire (in part) because of the internal symmetry of Mike’s Biblical reference. The life is eternal, so by cultural literary practice, the suffering would have to be just as eternal.”

    That’s not quite right. The text does not refer to “eternal life” versus “eternal suffering”; it refers to “eternal life” versus “eternal punishment.” We annihilationists believe the punishment will, indeed, be eternal: it will be death (the wages of sin is death) and that death will be forever. And, only the saved will live forever, contrary to the traditional view which holds that the damned will live forever as well, directly contradicting Jesus’ words that only the saved will inherit eternal life.

    If you’re interested in learning more about annihilationism and conditional immortality, consider checking out http://www.rethinkinghell.com. We’re conservative evangelicals committed to respectful, charitable dialogue on this topic, and at our website you’ll find a blog and podcast, a book we recently published through Cascade Books, and more.

    • Gary Whittenberger July 12, 2014, 4:59 AM

      Nobody knows what will happen after death, but there are many guesses, speculations, and hypotheses.

      Both you and Mike cherry pick your verses to support your preconceived ideas, both of which are likely mistaken. If God did exist and had communicated about his “system,” then we’d all be in perfect agreement.

      One of these propositions must necessarily be false:
      1. God exists.
      2. God communicates with human persons.
      3. God has communicated with human persons about his “system.”
      4. The Bible consists of “the word of God.”

  • Dawn Wessel July 11, 2014, 9:43 AM

    Annihilation is certainly not a nice thought and no one likes to think it, and it’s the reason why Jesus had to die on the cross.

    The idea behind it all is the “saving of the soul” (Heb. 10:39). If the ‘soul’ (animal principle/human life/part of us that’s solely from the earth) is not saved/changed then it cannot inherit eternal life along with its spirit (God’s image).

    The way the soul is saved is by getting ‘wisdom’:
    “He that gets wisdom loves his own soul…” (Proverbs 19:8)

    The information about wisdom is far to long to post here but if you would like to hear more of my views you can read them for free at authonomy.com (The 2 Factor: A Bible Law)

  • Darryl July 14, 2014, 12:02 PM

    1. If you live forever – in torture or otherwise – you have eternal life. Those who are not saved do not have eternal life. The promise of “eternal life” (not eternal happiness, but “life” itself) makes no sense unless those who don’t have eternal life do not live eternally.

    2. Permanent soul death is an “eternal punishment.”

    3. The Scriptures seem to suggest that at death the unsaved go to Hell for punishment, with different levels of punishment being given to different people. Then Hell is thrown into the Lake of Fire, where its occupants suffer a second death (eternal death). Suffering a “second death” makes no sense if the punishment does not change in any way from pre-Lake to post-Lake. Even if we say that being “cut off from God” in some sense is a “death,” that would happen to the unsaved while in Hell pre-Lake of Fire. Whatever the “second death” may be, it has to be a change of some kind. The most likely and obvious explanation is that the first death is the death of the flesh, and the second death is the death of the soul.

  • HG Ferguson July 21, 2014, 4:33 PM

    I come to this debate more than a little late, but Jesus Christ said in Matthew 25:41, Ferguson’s translation from the Greek: “Get out of my face, you accursed ones, into THE fire THE eternal one, THE one having been prepared and is now waiting…” I have read a lot of the Greek New Testament, but I’ve never seen a triple substantive article like that. The use of the article points out something very specific in Greek. The Word is going out of its way three times like a sledgehammer in the face to emphasize a specific place, a specific thing, a specific destiny — THE fire, THE eternal one, THE one having been prepared and is now waiting. This is as specific as it gets, people. When confronted with this, we must all do one of two things. We either accept it for what it is, the very words of Jesus Christ Himself, or we don’t. In light of that, friends, on whose side do you want to stand? As for me, I’ll stand with Him.

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