Arguments for the Annihilationist View of Hell

A contribution to an e-mail forum on 'what happens to the unsaved'I wanted to at least present the case for the Annihilationist view of hell. Whilst I remain unconvinced of the view, my main concern here was how we deal with verses and arguments of opposing theories.

First, a quick intro. The basic tenets of the annihilationist view of hell (or 'conditional immortality') are:

The Traditional view, however, can be summarized simply be saying that the 'unsaved' will go to 'hell' where they will be experience everlasting conscious suffering.

- On hell, it really doesn't matter 'where' this place is; the firmest idea in Scripture about it is that it is AWAY FROM GOD.

- On the suffering involved, now THIS is a tricky ball of wax. I do NOT believe that people will be experiencing 'mind-numbing' / excruciating / super-torturous pain in hell for all time. This is sadly the picture of hell many Christians today have: that it will consist of horrifying levels of torture/agony forever. (A friend even told me that he had a dream in which people in hell were having their cuts chopped off, put back on, chopped off again, then put back again, and so on - for eternity. I can only hope he gets more Biblical dreams, smile).

Fortunately, many evangelical scholars do not hold to this idea at all. Hell's suffering will be more RELATIONAL in nature, the internal caving-in of a Self completely rejecting God, a result of knowing that the reality they desire is a NEGATED one.

But I'm jumping ahead here, on to the case for annihilationism:

  1. Biblical Data - verses which, prima facie, suggest the annihilationist view
  2. Theological Arguments - integration between Scriptural 'themes' and how they may support the view
  3. Misc. Issues / Responses

1. Biblical Data

Below are some 'raw data' supporting annihilationism which, IMO, need to be held 'on par' with those verses suggesting the traditionalist view. The are many many more passages in Scripture relating to fate of the damned, but the below should suffice to suggest total and utter destruction (e.g. the 'consuming fire' burning away wood and chaff until only 'dry stubble' is left, dashing to pieces like pottery, vanishing, etc.)

Annihilationist would argue, with good reason, that these images are not easily reconciled with the traditional picture of endless conscious torment. Check 'em out:

Whatever non-annihilationist view we adopt (be it purgatory or traditional), we MUST take into account the above verses (only a sampling, remember) and the undeniable feature of DESTRUCTION.

How do we 'fit' this into the traditional picture of people existing forever and forever in torment? If hell's residents are as yet CONSCIOUS, how does this square with them being burnt like dry stubble, 'dashed to pieces', utterly consumed by a raging fire, etc.? How, in a word, could one say that they have been destroyed?

Before moving on to the theological arguments, here's a quote by a proponent of the view, P. Hughes:

"It would be hard to imagine a concept more confusing than that of death which means existing endlessly without the power to die" (True Image).

2. Theological Arguments

These are, as I gather, threefold: a) Immortality and incorruption are only for the righteous, b) God's final and ultimate victory and c) The model of Sodom & Gomorrah.

a) Immortality and incorruption are only for the righteous.

The key verse is 1Cor 15:52,

"...For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, THEN the saying that is written will come true: 'Death has been swallowed up in victory.'"

Notice we (the saved!) are required to 'put on' immortality and imperishability, a situation co-terminous with the final victory of God.

Also, only God is immortal by nature (1Tim 6:16), believers are given the gift of eternal life i.e. we do not inherently possess immortality. Expounding a little on an argument from Genesis, G.Boyd writes:

"(The Genesis account of the Fall arguably) teaches that Adam & Eve were expelled from the garden precisely so that they would not eat from 'the tree of life' and become immortal, like God [Gen 3:22]. They had been warned that disobedience would result in death. Not coincidentally, one of the privileges the citizens of the future kingdom of God are given is the 'right to the tree of life' that our original parents surrendered [Rev 22:14]." (Satan & the Problem of Evil, Boyd) (emphasis mine)

This, however, does not imply that the soul will cease to exist upon physical death, or at least not necessarily so. 'Conditional' immortality, as I understand it, can refer to the conditional endurance of the soul forever, not the short-term disembodied lingering whilst awaiting judgment.

b) God's final and ultimate victory

Annihilationists see as incompatible the idea of God being 'all in all' (1Cor 15:28) and 'having His fullness fill everything in every way' (Eph 1:10) with the existence of God-hating souls existing forever and forever (albeit away from Him).

The idea of a torturous never-ending existence of condemned souls also (arguably) clash with that of 'all creatures in heaven and earth bowing before the throne (Phil 2:10-11!) and 'all things being reconciled to God' (Col 1:20) or 'restored to Him' (Acts 3:21).

Remember too that the traditional doctrine implies that hell-sent creatures will forever be in REBELLION against God - does this not contradict, at least on an initial reading, passages like Acts 3:21, "He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything." How does eternal suffering constitute a restoration?

The traditional view of hell, annihilationists claim, would suggest a non-victorious God.


c) The model of Sodom & Gomorrah

Some NT writers seem to illustrate the final destruction of the ungodly by appealing to S&G as a 'test-case' of total annihilation.

By drawing on the historical example of S&G, the NT writers - so argue annihilationists - meant to highlight the element of complete and utter destruction.

(I could be jumping ahead again here, but it should be noted that the 'eternal fire' mentioned in Jude 7 is clearly qualitative, NOT quantitative - why, the annihilationist will ask, can't we read the other passages alluding to 'eternal' flames, etc. in a similar way?)

In fact, many other Biblical figures have used S&G as a fearful example: Moses (Deut 29:23), Isaiah (13:19), Jeremiah (50:40), Lamentations (4:6), Amos (4:11), Zephaniah (2:9) and of course Jesus himself in Lk 17:28-32).

The LACK of anything suggesting 'everlasting conscious torment' in the case of S&G is telling, no? Given that it's one of the (if not *the*) favorite 'model' of judgment used in Scripture, it's at least strange why many Christians have emphasized an element NOT present for S&G - perpetual suffering.

The judgment, punishment and suffering in S&G was fast, total and final (i.e. irreversible), resulting in total destruction (hey, there was almost NO 'SUFFERING' AT ALL!).

Ditto Hell. (See the objections and responses to this argument here).

Will close by citing the work of J.Wenham (in Universalism & the Doctrineof Hell, ed. Nigel Cameron), who analysed the 264 Scriptural references to the fate of the lost. His results were:

Important: In only ONE verse (less than 0.5%!) is there an allusion to unending torment. This is Rev 14:11 which, unfortunately for the traditional case, is increasingly read as symbolic hyper-bole by even traditional scholars themselves!

A tentative conclusion here, most warranted IMO, is that we traditionalists need to be a little more respectful of the newer views from our fellow 'siblings' in Christ. We must never, never mock them or employ rhetoric or exclusion as a primary tactic.

I hope to continue later with some annihilationist responses to texts supporting the traditional view - can the pro-trad. verses be (re)interpreted WITHOUT annihilating (pun intended) their clear meaning?




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