Thursday, July 26, 2018

What's the Deal with Hell? (Part 2 of 4): Annihilationism

Note: This piece is the second part of a theology paper discussing various views of the nature of hell in the orthodox and evangelical Christian traditions. This article provides an overview of the position known as annihilationism, together with arguments for and against it. Last week's piece assessed the position known as universalism, and next week's will examine several variations of the traditionalist position. The final week will offer some general conclusions on the evangelical theology of hell. After that, the ongoing series on foreshadowings of Christ in the Old Testament will resume.

(Illustration of Hell from a medieval French manuscript)

2.) The Cases for and Against Annihilationism

Annihilationism is the most prominent evangelical option in a broader range of doctrinal possibilities known as “conditional immortality.” The basic assumption of conditional immortality is that the human soul is not naturally immortal—that is, without the activity of God in resurrection and bestowing eternal life, humans would simply perish. There is a strong case that can be made biblically for this position, focusing largely on theological anthropology. Those who hold to conditional immortality would point to the necessary unity of human nature, whereas advocates of “natural immortality” believe that the body and soul are in some sense separable, the former being mortal until the resurrection, the latter immortal.

As applied to the doctrines of the final judgment and hell, two main lines of thinking emerge from conditional immortality: (1) those who are not destined for eternal life with Christ will simply remain dead, having forfeited the chance for resurrection; or (2) God will raise the damned in a temporary resurrection before judging and destroying them. The latter position is known as annihilationism.

Historical Basis: While conditional immortality appears to have been born largely from a recent boom in conditionalist theologies, its pedigree goes back even further in church history than universalism. The earliest major proponent, so far as we can tell, was Irenaeus of Lyons (late 2nd century AD), the first great seminal theologian of the faith. He is purported to have learned doctrine at the feet of Polycarp of Smyrna, who learned from Papias and the Apostle John. In Irenaeus’ thought, the soul is not to be conceived of as separable from the body. Thus, the Christian hope is not the immortality of the soul, but rather the resurrection of body and soul to God-given eternal life. And since that kind of immortality would be a gift of God for the righteous, Irenaeus seems to deny that the unrighteous would be raised to any sort of eternal life:

"It is the Father who imparts continuance for ever and ever on those who are saved. For life does not arise from us, nor from our own nature; but it is bestowed according to the grace of God. And therefore he who shall preserve the life bestowed upon him, and give thanks to Him who imparted it, shall receive also length of days for ever and ever. But he who shall reject it, and prove himself ungrateful to his Maker…deprives himself of [the privilege of] continuance for ever and ever."[1]

This doctrine has important ramifications on our conception of the final judgment. If immortality is somehow natural to the human soul, then any future punishment would presumably have to be everlasting by definition. But if immortality is a gift given by God, then the door is open for alternative theories in which punishment may exist for unbelievers, but not everlastingly. (And on the other side, if Irenaeus’ view is correct, then the doctrine of hell as eternal punishment depends on God’s active decision to make it impossible for the tormented damned to ever die).

However, the church, influenced both by Greek notions of the independence and immortality of the soul and by certain Pauline references which seem to lean in that direction, quickly moved away from Irenaeus’ doctrine. One notable exception is Arnobius of Sicca (died c.330 AD), who advocated the idea of the annihilation of those who do not know God in the fires of hell.[2] On the whole, though, theories of conditional immortality largely disappeared from mainstream Christianity until relatively recently. In our day, annihilationism is championed by a number of prominent evangelicals, including John Stott and Clark Pinnock.

Scriptural Basis: A broad stream of the New Testament teaching on the fate of unbelievers uses the terminology of death and destruction rather than eternal punishment. At the beginning of biblical history, Adam and Eve are instructed that the penalty for disobeying God is death (Gen. 2:17), and Paul famously sums up the problem of sin along the same lines: “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Jesus himself describes God’s judgment in terms of “destroying body and soul in hell” (Matt. 10:28). The very allusion to fire and the burning of the wicked can be taken as an illustration of annihilation—just as the refuse thrown into the Valley of Gehenna was burned away, so unbelievers will be burned away (in this interpretation, the “everlasting” nature of the fire can be taken as a metaphorical reference to God’s undying hatred of sin). Annihilationists argue that when the Bible speaks of “eternal punishment,” as in Matt. 25, “eternal” can be taken as a reference to “the permanence of the result of judgment rather than the continuous operation of the act of punishment itself. So ‘eternal punishment’ means an act of judgment whose results are irreversible.”[3]

Paul draws heavily on the idea of destruction as the fate of unbelievers. He says of unbelievers that “they will be destroyed” (Phil. 1:28), “they will be punished with everlasting destruction” (2 Thess. 1:9), and “their destiny is destruction” (Phil. 3:19). Peter paints the same picture—he speaks of the “destruction of ungodly men” (2 Peter 3:7) and says that they would be destroyed like the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (2:6).

Theological Basis: Part of the theological basis for annihiliationism is exactly the same as that outlined for universalism above. Both are, in a sense, reactions against the traditionalist position. In particular, annihilationists react against the claim that eternal, conscious torment is an idea worthy of a loving God and against the assumption that such a fate is a just return for the crime of sin. They argue that the destruction of the wicked would be both just and merciful (at least when compared with the traditionalists’ doctrine), matching the crime against the penalty originally given in the Garden of Eden. As Pinnock puts it, “It is easy to accept that annihilation might be deserved by those whose lives turned in a definitive No to God, but it is hard to accept hell as everlasting conscious torment with no hope of escape or remittance as a just punishment for anything.”[4]

A second theological rationale for annihilationism is the Irenaeic position on conditional immortality as outlined above. It is argued that resurrection, rather than the immortality of the soul, is the Christian hope. As such, eternal life is a gift of God, and presumably it is a gift which he would not give to the damned.

A third reason, advanced by both universalists and annihilationists, is that the existence of a realm of everlasting punishment and torment would create an “eternal cosmological dualism.”[5] In such a state, there would always be some part of the cosmos eternally in rebellion against God, which seems to go against the biblical teaching of the full restoration of all things under the sovereignty of Christ.

The Case Against Annihilationism: The Scriptural case for annihilationism is somewhat stronger than the case for universalism, but it still fails to do justice to the full NT teaching about the fate of unbelievers. First, we must consider the terminology. Annihilationists rely heavily on the Greek words apollymi and olethros as signifying “annihilation” or “destruction.” But the NT use of the words does not bear this out quite as clearly as annihilationists would like. Apollymi can also mean “to be lost” or “to become useless.” Douglas Moo writes, “The words need not mean ‘destruction’ in the sense of ‘extinction’….Rather, they usually refer to the situation of a person or object that has lost the essence of its nature or function.”[6] On the basis of the NT context of descriptions of an eternal hell, Hoekema sums up the traditionalist objection: “Apollymi, when used to describe the ultimate destiny of those who are not in Christ, means everlasting perdition.”[7]

A further objection can be made against the annihiliationists’ use of “eternal” to suggest the duration of the results rather than the duration of the punishment. Such a claim makes little sense of the parable of Matt. 25, already cited above, where the “eternal punishment” of the unrighteous is set in direct parallel with the “eternal life” of the righteous. If we adjust the meaning of the former use, we would presumably also have to adjust the meaning of the latter, a choice which is quite clearly unacceptable to biblical Christians. Further, it is clear from some passages that the torment of the wicked is everlasting. Take Rev. 14:10-11: “[The one who follows the Beast] shall be tormented with fire and sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; and they have no rest, day or night.”

Against the argument that such a punishment is unbefitting the crime, traditionalists could just as easily say that annihilationism lets some sinners off the hook too easily. The depth of some people’s rebellion against God would seem to merit some punishment beyond simply a cessation of existence. It would be no great punishment for sinners to be killed a second time, since they would have never assumed the assurance of eternal life, and so they would not truly be losing anything. C. S. Lewis paints the picture of a gleefully unrepentant sinner, who snubs his nose at God, and the suggestion is that we Christians will agree that he ought to be punished in some definite, conscious manner according to his rebellion:

"You are moved not by a desire for the wretched creature’s pain as such, but by a truly ethical demand that, soon or late, the right should be asserted, the flag planted in this horribly rebellious soul, even if no fuller and better conquest is to follow. In a sense, it is better for the creature itself, even if it never becomes good, that it should know itself a failure, a mistake."[8]

One may also raise the question to evangelical annihilationists, who generally believe that unbelievers will be resurrected, judged, and destroyed, as to why it is necessary to resurrect them at all. Scripture, which teaches a judgment for unbelievers, drives this system of thought, but it makes little logical sense. If the damned are destined to be dead anyway, why raise them from the dead just to kill them again?

Against the claim that resurrection, rather than the immortality of the soul, is the biblical teaching, there can be several rebuttals. Clearly resurrection is the main teaching about the Christian hope; however, there are indications that the soul may be immortal in ways that the body is not. For instance, Jesus tells his followers not to fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul (Matt. 10:28). Presumably, if a human was a fully integrated unity of body and soul, killing the body would also kill the soul. Paul also speaks of being absent from the body, but present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8). The classical Christian doctrine has never been a purely Platonic idea of the immortality of the soul, but rather that the soul is immortal because God wills it so and because the ground of our being is in the eternal God himself. Thus, even the traditionalist position would hold to a certain conditionality of eternal life in the sense that the soul is not independently immortal.

And finally, against the argument that an eternal hell creates an everlasting cosmological dualism, two responses are possible. First is the response of Lewis, who agrees that hell is a defeat for God and his loving mission to humanity. He writes:

"In creating beings with free will, omnipotence from the outset submits to the possibility of such defeat. [But] what you call defeat, I call miracle: for to make things which are not Itself, and thus to become, in a sense, capable of being resisted by its own handiwork, is the most astonishing and unimaginable of all the feats we attribute to the Deity." [9]

The second response comes from the broader stream of classical Christianity, which suggests that if God is in fact a God of justice, then the execution of that justice is in no sense a defeat. Rather, it is a reflection of his glory and holiness, a testament to his unending, righteous opposition to sin. In this light, hell represents the triumph of God over the power of evil. The book of Revelation goes so far as to depict the angels rejoicing over the fate of the wicked. Hell is not the tragedy; sin is, and hell is merely God’s righteous reaction to sin.


[1] Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies II:34:3, quoted in Powys, 4.

[2] Christopher W. Morgan, “Annihilationism: Will the Unsaved Be Punished Forever?” in Hell Under Fire, 197.

[3] Travis, 135.

[4] Pinnock, 152.

[5] Travis, 135.

[6] Douglas Moo, “Paul on Hell,” in Hell Under Fire, 105.

[7] Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 270.

[8] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (San Francisco: Harper, 1996), 123.

[9] Ibid., 129-130.