Are you an annihilationist, and if so, why?
Annihilationism is the view that whoever and whatever cannot be redeemed by God is ultimately put out of existence. Sentient beings do not suffer eternally, as the traditional view of hell teaches.I’m strongly inclined toward the annihilationist position. The reason is that it strikes me as the view that has the best biblical support. I’ll group the Scriptural data into 16 points. (For a fuller exposition of this, see the essay “The Case for Annihilationism”)
1) The Bible teaches that immortality belongs to God alone (I Tim. 6:16). God graciously offers immortality as a gift to people who align themselves with his will (e.g. John 3:15–16; 10:28; 17:2; Rom. 2:7; 6:23; 1 Cor. 15:42f; 50, 54; Gal. 6:8; 1 John 5:11). Those who choose to reject God’s will are denied this gift, following the pattern of Adam and Eve when God denied them access to “the tree of life” (Gen 3:22-24). This implies that all who reject the gift of eternal life perish. The traditional view of hell, however, assumes that people are inherently immortal, which is a Greek, not a biblical, view.
2) Scripture teaches that the wicked suffer “eternal punishment”(Mt 25:46), “eternal judgment” (Heb 6:2) and “eternal destruction” (2 Thess 1:9), but this doesn’t mean the wick endure “eternal destruction.” They rather experience “eternal destruction” the same way the elect experience “eternal redemption” (Heb 5:9, 9:12). The elect do not undergo an eternal process of redemption. Their redemption is “eternal” in the sense that once the elect are redeemed, it is forever. So too, the damned do not undergo an eternal process of destruction (is that even a coherent concept?). The wicked are “destroyed forever” (Ps 92:7), but they are not forever being destroyed.
3) If read in context, its clear that Scripture’s references to an “unquenchable fire” and “undying worm” refer to the finality of judgment, not its duration (Isa. 66:24, cf. 2 Kgs 22:17; 1:31; 51:8; Jer. 4:4; 7:20; 21:12; Ezek. 20:47–48). The fire is unquenchable in the sense that it cannot be put it out before it consumes those thrown into it. And the worm is undying in the sense that there is no hope for the condemned that it will be prevented from devouring their corpse.
4) Peter specifically cites the total destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as a pattern of how God judges the wicked. The Lord turned the inhabitants of these cities “to ashes” and “condemned them to extinction” thus making “them an example of what is coming to the ungodly…” (2 Pet. 2:6). Conversely, the Lord’s rescue of Lot sets a pattern for how the Lord will “rescue the godly from trial” (2 Pet. 2:9).
5) Throughout the Old Testament the Lord threatens the wicked with annihilation. About the wicked Moses says God will “blot out their names from under heaven” (Deut. 29:20). God will destroy them “like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah…which the Lord destroyed in his fierce anger…’” (Deut. 29:23).
6) All the metaphors about God’s judgment in the Old Testament imply total annihilation. For example, in Isaiah the Lord warns that “rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together”: they “shall be consumed”; they will “…be like an oak whose leaf withers”; they will be like “tinder” and they and their work “shall burn together” (Isa 1:28, 30-31). Elsewhere Isaiah says the wicked will be like stubble and dry grass burned up in fire ( Isa 5:24).
7) In Pslams we read that the wicked shall be “like chaff that the wind drives away… the wicked will perish” (Ps. 1:4, 6). They shall be “blotted out of the book of the living…” (Ps. 69:28, cf. Deut. 29:20). God will “cut off the remembrance of them from the earth…(Ps. 34:16, 21). In the powerful words of Obediah, the wicked “shall be as though they had never been” (Obed. 16, emphasis added).
8 ) Along the same lines the Psalmist says the wicked “will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb” (Ps. 37:2). They “shall be cut off…and…will be no more; though you look diligently for their place, they will not be there“ (Ps. 37:9–10). While the righteous “abide forever” (37:27), “the wicked perish…like smoke they vanish away” (Ps. 37:20); they “vanish like water that runs away; like grass [they shall] be trodden down and wither”; “like the snail that dissolves into slime; like the untimely birth that never sees the sun” (Ps. 58:7–8). And again, “…transgressors shall be altogether destroyed” (Ps. 37:38, cf. vs. 34, emphasis added). In short, the fate of the wicked is disintegration into nothingness.
9) Other Old Testament authors use similar annihilationist language to describe God’s judgment of the wicked. Daniel says rebells will be “like the chaff of the summer threshing floor” blown away by the wind “so that not a trace of them [can] be found” (Dan. 2:35). Nahum says that in the judgment the wicked “are consumed like dry straw” (Nahum 1:10). Malachi tells us that the judgment day shall come “burning like an oven” and “all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble.” The judgment thus “shall burn them up” (Mal. 4:1).
10) So too, Proverbs tells us that after God’s judgment “the wicked are no more…” (10:25, emphasis added). When God’s fury rises, “[t]he wicked are overthrown and are no more…” (12:7, emphasis added). And finally, “[t]he evil have no future; the lamp of the wicked will go out” (24:20). How can passages like this be reconciled with the traditional view that says the wicked will forever exist in conscious suffering?
11) Throughout the Old Testament we’re taught that while God’s anger endures for a moment, his love endures forever (Ps. 30:5; e.g. 2 Chr. 5:13; 7:3, 6; 20:21; Ps. 100:5; 103:9; 106:1; 107:1; Ps 118;1-4, 29; 136:10-26). How is this consistent with the traditional teaching that God’s love and anger are equally eternal?
12) Just as with the Old Testament, all the main metaphors used to describe God’s judgment in the New Testament imply annihilation. For example, John the Baptist proclaimed that “every tree…that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown in the fire” (Matt. 3:10). He announced that the Messiah “will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the grainary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12). Jesus himself describes hell as a consuming fire several times (Matt. 7:19; 13:40; John 15:6) as do a number of other passages (Heb 6:8, 10:7; Jude 7, cf. Isa 33:11).
13) The New Testament describes the fate of rebells as destruction. Jesus contrasts the wide gate that “leads to destruction” with the narrow gate that “leads to life” (Matt. 7:13). So too, he tells his disciples not to fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather “fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). The implication is that God will do to the soul of the wicked what humans do to the body when they kill it. And this implies that the soul of the wicked will not go on existing in a conscious state after it has been destroyed.
Along the same lines, James teaches that God alone is able to both “save and destroy” (Jam. 4:12). Peter teaches that “destruction” awaits false, greedy teachers (2 Pet. 2:3). And Paul teaches that the quest for riches can plunge people into “ruin and destruction” (1 Tim. 6:9). Moreover, all who are “enemies of the cross” have “destruction” as their final end (Phil. 3:18–19, cf. 1:28). So too, if anyone “destroys the temple of God, God will destroy that person” (1 Cor. 3:17). With the same force the apostle teaches that “[s]udden destruction” will come upon the wicked in the last days (1 Thess. 5:3). This day is elsewhere described as a day for “the destruction of the godless” (2 Pet. 3:7). These passages seem to contradict the traditional view that damned souls are in fact never destroyed but rather endure endless torment.
14) The New Testament also frequently expresses the destiny of the wicked by depicting them as dying or perishing. John says Jesus came so that “everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). Paul utilizes this same contrast when he states that while those who proclaim the gospel are a “fragrance from life to life” to those “who are being saved,” it is “a fragrance from death to death” to those “who are perishing” (2 Cor. 2:15–16). So too, Paul teaches that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life” (Rom. 6:23, cf. 21, 1:32). This is consistent with Jesus teaching when he says that those who try to find life apart from God end up losing it (Matt. 10:39). Many other passages depict the fate of the wicked as death as well (Ja 1:15; 5:19; 1 Tim. 1:10; Heb. 2:14. The repeated contrast in all these passages between “death,” losing life, and “perishing,” on the one hand, with “life,” on the other, seems quite incompatible with the contrast of eternal bliss with eternal pain which the traditional teaching on hell presupposes.
15) The most powerful scriptural passages that can be cited against annihilationism is Revelations 14:10-11 and 20:10. These speak of the wicked being tormented “day and night forever and ever.” Yet, these passages are not all that hard to explain. We must keep in mind that Revelation is a highly symbolic book. Its apocalyptic images should not be interpreted literally. This is particularly true of the phrase “for ever and ever” since similar phrases are used elsewhere in Scripture in contexts where they clearly cannot literally mean “unending” (e.g. Gen 49:26; Ex 40:15; Nu 25:13; Ps 24:7).
The most significant example of this is Isaiah 34:9-10, for it closely parallels the two passages in Revelation. In this passage Isaiah says that the fire that shall consume Edom shall burn “[n]ight and day” and “shall not be quenched.” Its smoke “shall go up forever” and no one shall pass through this land again “forever and ever.” Obviously, this is symbolic, for the fire and smoke of Edom’s judgment isn’t still ascending today. If we know the phrase isn’t literal in Isaiah, how much less inclined should we be to interpret a nearly identical expression literally in Revelation?
16) Finally, I find it impossible to reconcile the all important New Testament message that God is love (1 Jn 4:8, 16) with the traditional teaching that hell involves hopeless, conscious suffering. In the traditional view, the damned don’t suffer in order to learn anything. There’s nothing remedial about their pain. There’s literally no point to their suffering, other than the pain itself. And this pain is without hope of ever being terminated or relieved. How is this view at all compatible with a God whose heart was expressed on Calvary — when Jesus gave his life for these very people? Would we call a human being good or merciful – or anything other than cruel — who retaliated on his foes with this sort of unmitigated, insatiable, unending vengeance? Isn’t it more reasonable, and more biblical, to suppose that the God who gave his life for those who are damned would simply put them out of their misery if and when they became hopelessly irredeemable?
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